Photo: A visit with my dear friend, Bibi Sangho, in Mali.
It was days away from a much anticipated trip to Mali when I awoke to the news that there was a terrorist attack in Paris, where I had planned to spend three days enjoying time alone wandering the streets of the Marais district. The layover in Paris had to be canceled. Disappointing, but at least I could still make my connecting flight there and proceed to Mali.
Then the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako happened. There would be no trip to Mali this year.
The trip was aborted last year because of the ebola epidemic. A couple of years before, we also had to postpone a trip due to a coup that made the country somewhat unsafe for conspicuous Caucasians.
My husband and I are in a Partnership Ministry Team with The Luke Society. We help support Indielou Dougnon, a dedicated nurse practitioner who serves three tribes in western Mali. We also have a connection with the Ase Mali orphanage in the capitol city of Bamako. Our roles in this work are that we work together to offer help and prayer, but I travel with others on the team and use my French language skill, while he stays home at command central.
I ache to see my friends in Mali, dedicated servants who serve the needs of the poor. The disappointment is profound. Yet my sadness over a lost opportunity to reconnect with friends feels self-indulgent, and here’s why. What difference does it really make whether I get to go to Africa or not? It doesn’t matter one whit to anyone in my circle here in the U.S. Life will go on.
At the same time, my Malian friends have to deal with real danger: the threat of famine, the instability of their homeland, the lack of access to adequate health care. Then there is the risk of being a Christian in a Muslim country where for many years their minority religion has not been a problem, but in these recent times could label them as a threat to extremists who are infiltrating the population.
Visiting our friends is an encouragement to them. It reminds them that they are not forgotten by their fellow believers in other parts of the world. At the same time it prevents me from drifting into spiritual apathy or entitlement. I believe that both of these are worthy reasons to go to Africa, among many others.
I am not satisfied with the role of tourist missionary. I don’t like merely visiting people and places where the population lives on the edge of danger and then running back to home base where I am safe. At the same time I am not called to live there; it wouldn’t make sense to live apart from my husband, who clearly is not called to the same thing. And so I accept the fact that I can visit Mali, but I can’t live there.
Still, it stings to know that I can take safety for granted, in contrast with friends who face hardship.
So what can I do? I can seek opportunities to tell their story. I can support them financially, encourage them consistently, pray for them faithfully, and visit them when I am able. I can remind them that they are not alone. I can visit them when possible and keep them in mind between the visits. I can avoid self-pity about canceled trips and pray for my friends who have no choice but to live with elements of danger. I can look beyond that and see the many wonderful aspects of their lives and culture. I can recognize that their lot is not less “blessed” than mine, and God is fully present with them, working for them and loving them and their friends daily, faithfully.
On the weekend that my trip to Mali was canceled, I attended church with my husband since I had already arranged pulpit supply for my absence. The text for the sermon was the Magnificat, Mary’s song about the hope her son would bring to the world. I was reminded that the poor are the “favored” ones.
“God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1.53)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6.20b)
Favor is not about being wealthy. We in the middle/upper class U.S. cannot point to our abundance and call it God’s blessing, not in the way I understand the Beatitudes. To me that implies that those who are not wealthy are not blessed. The Scriptures tell us instead that God’s favor is extended to those who experience poverty on a daily basis.
I have much to learn about God’s favor for the poor. I am grateful to have friends who are teaching me that poverty often has nothing to do with danger or lack of resources, that wealth in the reign of God is ours because a much deeper security is ours in Jesus Christ. We are rich when our bonds of love with one another are strong in spite of the distances between us. We are blessed because we are able to share our stories of God’s faithfulness. We are favored when we shed tears of disappointment and then remind each other to trust the God who loves us all.